If you watch the Magic, you see it at least a dozen times a game, and probably many more: Dwight Howard sets a screen at the top of the arc for the primary ball-handler on the play (almost always Jameer Nelson or Vince Carter). The ball-handler drives to his right, around the Howard screen, and D-12 rolls to the hoop.
Meanwhile, a shooter loops from the wing or the paint and out to area near the top of the arc that the ball-handler just vacated. The idea is for the guy with the ball to have three options: 1) Shoot/drive himself; 2) Hit Howard on the roll; 3) Kick back to the shooter who just looped around behind him. Other options flow from there.
Stop this action, and you’ve gone a long way toward stopping an offense that was the 4th-most efficient in the league this season.
In Game 3, the Celtics shut down this action almost completely.
How’d they do it? Let’s check out some video. Here’s a textbook example from late in the 2nd quarter:
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s break the play down a bit.
This is a Nelson/Howard pick-and-roll, with Vince Carter playing the role of the shooter who loops from the left wing closer to the center of the court to make himself a target for Nelson.
The C’s defended this play the same way almost every time: Rondo went over the screen, Howard’s guy sagged back to cut off Nelson until Rondo could recover, and other Celtics drifted toward the paint just a bit as Howard rolled to the hoop. Here’s a still from just before Nelson’s pass to Carter:
You see the basic strategy here: Davis has moved a bit off of Howard to cut Nelson off, while Pierce and Ray Allen have moved to the left edge of the paint to swarm Howard if necessary.
Notice, though, that no one is over-committed. Davis is in position to find Howard easily, and Pierce, though he’s helping, is still at the elbow, ready to close out on Carter when the pass goes there. Look where Pierce is as Vince makes the catch:
Could Vince get a shot off here? Sure, but it would be rushed, with Pierce in his face. Carter doesn’t even look to find Howard in the post, and you almost can’t blame Carter, given how ineffective Howard has been against Davis in this series.
So the Celtics have cut off all three primary options on this play—the Nelson drive or pull-up, the entry pass to Howard and the Carter three. The only threat left is for Vince to take advantage of Pierce’s momentum by driving and dishing to Redick in the left corner.
But take a look at Ray Allen guarding Redick. He’s close enough to contest a Redick three even if Carter’s pass gets there cleanly. Ray deflects the pass for good measure, and the Magic get nothing.
Here’s another example from the end of the 2nd quarter, this time with KG guarding Howard and Ryan Anderson looping up to the three-point arc behind the initial screen/roll:
As you can see, Boston defends this the same way:
There’s KG shifting just off of Howard as Rondo chases Nelson over the screen. You can see Anderson on the left wing, making his way out to three-point arc; Anderson’s guy, Glen Davis, has moved toward Howard but is still tracking Anderson’s movement to the perimeter even as he helps on Dwight.
Here’s how things look when Anderson catches the ball:
Davis is right there to contest any Anderson three, so Anderson opts for the entry pass instead.
I know what you’re saying: A good entry pass hurts Boston here. Garnett would have to foul Howard to prevent a score, or, even worse, Howard could make the catch, notice Pierce helping off of Carter and find Vince in the right corner for an open three.
But you know what? That’s the whole point of Boston’s defense. It has already taken away a few of Orlando’s best options on this play, forcing the Magic into a situation where a big man (Anderson) has to throw a perfect entry pass over an elite defender.
And if it gets there? The C’s are willing to live with Howard at the foul line, and they’re sure as hell willing to tip their cap if Howard can actually make the catch, gather, turn and find Carter in the corner. Because he can’t, and Boston knows he can’t.
Let’s look at a couple more. Here’s one from the 1st quarter, with the added bonus that instead of commentary from basketball analysts, you can listen to Jake Gyllenhaal promote a horrible movie:
This is a Carter/Howard pick-and-roll, which means Ray Allen (and not Rajon Rondo) is defending the ball-handler here. And Ray isn’t quite as good as Rondo at squeezing over screens without losing too much ground. The Howard screen catches Ray, and the C’s defense is slightly compromised:
At this moment, as Gyllenhaal lies about “Price of Persia” possibly being anything but a stink-bomb, the Magic are winning this play. Carter has a lot of ground on Ray, which means that Howard’s guy (Perk) has to commit to Vince more aggressively than Howard’s defender had to commit to Nelson in the prior clips. Perk is basically guarding Carter in the above photo.
We can see that Rashard Lewis, the alleged key to this series, has looped into position to catch and shoot at the top of the arc.
But this photo shows us why Lewis has struggled in this series. You would think that Lewis’s guy (KG, at the foul line with Howard) would essentially leave Lewis and guard Howard, since Perk is occupied with Carter.
But KG doesn’t do that. He gets in Howard’s way just a bit, but he’s careful not to give Lewis much space here. The C’s are just as concerned with the Magic’s three-point game as they are with Howard’s potential to score as the roll man.
Which is not to say they are unconcerned with Howard. With Lewis closed off as an option, Carter’s first look is to Howard on the roll. And when he looks there, he sees this:
You think you can thread a pass into Howard there? Good luck. You’ve got Ray catching up on one side while Perk, knowing exactly what Carter wants to do, has the full wingspan going like some scowling terradactyl. And Paul Pierce has left Matt Barnes in the corner to help from behind on Howard. Again: If you can sneak the pass in, the C’s are just going to foul Howard. And you probably can’t sneak it in, anyway.
What are you left with? The worst and most difficult possible option: The skip pass to Barnes, a career 32.9 percent three-point shooter. With options A-D closed off, Carter chooses the skip pass. Because Vince holds the ball for a second or two, Pierce can wait for Perkins to recover onto Howard and jump back out to Barnes.
There is just nothing there for Orlando.
We’ll do a couple more, with limited comment.
This one is notable because the Celtics are clearly less concerned with Barnes playing the role of the guy looping out to the perimeter here. Pierce helps Rondo and Perk shut down the screen/roll before getting back out to Barnes, but he doesn’t get out to Barnes as urgently as the other Celtic defenders got out to Lewis, Redick, Carter, or Anderson on the above plays. The C’s are willing to live with a contested Matt Barnes three.
Another Howard/Nelson pick-and-roll, with Carter again as the loop-around shooter. I like this play because it demonstrates the importance of Perk’s defense. The Magic love when this set gets them a clean entry pass from the shooter (Carter) at the top of the arc to Howard in the middle of the paint with a defender on this back. Against most teams, Howard will either score, draw a foul or draw a double-team from which he can pass out to a shooter.
Not against Boston. If Perk can help and recover onto Howard before Howard gets much below the dotted line, the C’s are willing to live with Howard working in isolation.
Watch the clip and notice how Perkins is able to move Howard from near the block/charge circle out to the dotted line before Howard catches the entry pass. How many guys in the league can do that? Shaq, Perk, maybe Yao when healthy? Am I missing someone? Roy Hibbert, maybe?
The C’s are able to limit Orlando’s scoring off of this action in part because they just don’t fear Howard in the lane. They will not over-commit to him if it means leaving a good three-pointer shooter (i.e. not Matt Barnes) open.
But here’s the thing about basketball: There are always counters. There are openings here—very small ones, mind you—for the Magic to slither through. But such slithering requires confidence and aggression. Jameer Nelson has a chance on some of these plays to blow by the screener’s man and go to the basket, but he seldom takes those chances. The Magic shooters have a split second to catch and drive—without a pump fake, and without delay—as their guy closes out, a split second in which they could catch Boston’s defense mid-rotation.
Orlando was unable or unwilling to do those things in Game 3. And those tiny openings? That’s all there was for Orlando in Game 3.
If Orlando can’t counter in Game 4, this series will be over.